"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Corrupt Electoral Process–Failed American Exceptionalism And The Decline Of Democracy

Not a few Americans have wondered in this long, interminable, and smarmy Presidential campaign, if there isn’t a better way.  Many more have wondered whether Churchill was right when he said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all others.

Can the system be fixed?

It wasn’t so long ago that presidential candidates were chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room, and a review of those selected shows that a small, restrictive, and homogenous group could indeed choose responsible, decent, and trustworthy candidates.  Of course not all candidates were of the highest caliber, but those chosen after 1968 when the chaotic Democratic Convention prompted many to opt for a more ‘democratic’ process of selection were certainly no better or worse than before.

The people should have more of a say – in fact the only say – in who would stand for election, said reformers.  The time had come for the old, rusty, anti-democratic if not elitist machine to be retired.
Yet the institution of the primary system which indeed was more democratic had one unexpected result – an uneducated, ill-prepared electorate which votes on the basis of image, emotion, and visceral instincts cannot be expected to judge with the same honed instincts of party regulars. 

Alexander Hamilton was very suspicious of the people who since the days of the Roman republics had been fickle at best in their choices.  Better to have a system of government which protected the people from themselves and granted more legislative, electoral, and judicial authority to a small group of professionals – men who had been brought up and educated to respect the principles of Cato the Elder who believed that Roman leaders must be educated not only in the mechanics of governance, but according to principles of honor, courage, compassion, respect, and duty.  While wealth and privilege did not always grant men the ability to judge and rule wisely, they were as good predictors of justice and good sense as any.

Hamilton compromised with Jefferson, and the bicameral system of government was adopted.  Yet throughout his writings Hamilton expressed his doubts and worried that too much democracy could corrode the principles of democratic governance and dismiss the classic principles of the Enlightenment and Ancient Greece and Rome.

Hamilton has been shown to be more right than he could ever have imagined, and the campaign of 2016 is an unfortunate but accurate confirmation of his concerns.  Logic, reason, careful consideration of the most important issues facing the country seem to have been abandoned; and the two candidates battle not on the basis of what is good for the country, but what is good for them.

Some observers have argued that Donald Trump’s radical populism is a good thing – that finally and irrevocably the old guard, hide-bound, and increasingly venal and self-interested Establishment will be removed from power.  Elected officials, the judiciary – especially the Supreme Court – and the media are a destructive, insular cabal; and only a radical version of Jefferson’s populism can restore true democracy.

Others have said that such radical populism can only destroy what is left of Jefferson’s high ideals; and that the Republic will be no more than a nation ruled by the worst instincts of human nature.
Trump could have been avoided had there been smoke-filled rooms where partisan politicians were charged with selecting the candidate most likely to win and the one most reflective of historically American values.

This of course, is nonsense, given the fact that the two parties have long slid into hyper-partisanship and win-at-all-costs stratagems.  Furthermore, why should anyone assume that such self-selected men, many who have risen to power and authority on the basis of seniority and insider-maneuvering will act in the interest of the people.  They, after all, come from the people and are as unwashed as their constituents.

Is there then a reform which would combine Hamiltonian reserve and Jeffersonian populism?  Has the country, now so pluralistic and in the embrace of identity politics, passed a point of no return?  Are we doomed to a succession of clowns and deceivers? 

We should have learned from the French Reign of Terror that the will of the people can be just as injudicious, bloody, and authoritarian as the aristocracy.  What Robespierre wrought is on evidence today.

There is a good argument for bringing back the aristocracy – or at least aristocratic values.  There will always be stratification in any society, and those with education, breeding, and nobility have often followed the principle of noblesse oblige.  George H.W.Bush is one such American aristocrat who, regardless of his political failings, was a man of honor, courage, and patriotic service.  The principles of his family were no different than those espoused by Cato the Elder and moralists of the Early Church. 

Yet American aristocrats – the old WASPs – are long gone; and in their place is a new entrepreneurial technocrats, investment bankers, and commodity traders.  Wealth no longer confers social responsibility and is an end in itself.   They cannot be counted on to protect and preserve the ideals and principles of the Republic.

Many societies are turning to charismatic, powerful, nationalistic leaders.  Vladimir Putin is not an anomaly but an example of new, radical governance.  His goals are clear – Russian hegemony, a renascence of Russian imperialism, a unification of church and state – and his popularity is widespread.  Radical Islamists, like Putin, reject Western-style democracy as corrupt; and believe that only a state ruled by God’s law can truly restore fundamental values. 

The separatism experienced in the United States is common in other parts of the world.  Individual communities reject secular and/or democratic rule for a more purposeful autocracy. 

The problem with American democracy is reflected in the increasing dismissal of democracy itself.   American exceptionalism has been shown to be fractious and dangerous and far from the ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers.

The hope for a truly principled leader who would rule according to classical values and have the authority to reconstitute a chaotic nation is vain.   The train has already left the station, and the next American President will rule over a nation divided, without a cultural center, without abiding moral values and principles.

The primary process is but one example of this fall from democratic grace.  Campaigns are in themselves divisive and corrosive and do little to promote social cohesion and a return to classical values.  Is there no way to return from the endemic separatism and political idolatry of today?

If the aristocracy is long gone, and if the country is not yet ready to submit to benign autocracy; if America’s Christianity has been diluted by cultural pluralism with few hopes for a muscular theocratic government; and if the country continues to come apart at the many seams which hold it together, then another generation of a weak, purposeless, and ineffective ‘democracy’ is assured. 

One thing is certain – the world is moving far more towards theocracy, autocracy, and cultural imperialism than ever before.  The United States’ moral authority – its exceptionalism – has been discredited abroad; and tens of millions of Americans are frustrated, angry, and resentful at the country’s present course. 

A Trump presidency would move the country to more autocratic governance, despite its foundation on radical populism.   His administration would roll back multiculturalism, defy the elitist Establishment, and institute strong leadership.  Yet many questions still remain about his stability, geopolitical savvy, and ability to run a complex government.

The primary system represents the worst of America, not the best; and radical populism, although it will be the moving force behind the necessary cleaning of the Augean Stables of politics, will eventually lead the country into far worse chaos than now exists.

America is most definitely at a turning point.  The status quo cannot continue.  A country which has moved so far from its founding principles, lacks principled leadership, and finds itself far behind the curve of increasing sectarianism, religious authority, and cultural expression, cannot survive as is.

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